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World War One (primary sources)

13 Jul 2016

Our Subjects / Ā Mātou Kaupapa:
History, Society and culture

Where can I find primary sources on World War One?

LEVEL: Secondary

World War One, also called the First World War, took place between 1914 and 1918. New Zealand fought on the side of the Allies (British Empire, France, Russia etc) against the Ottoman Turks at Gallipoli and against the Germans on the Western Front in France and Belgium. Due to the centenary of the war, from 2014 to 2018, lots of primary sources are now available online and will keep being added to.

One of the best places to look for primary sources from New Zealand is DigitalNZ. This is a huge website that brings together the online collections of lots of New Zealand libraries, archives and museums. Use the big search box near the top of the page to look for sources.

  • Searching by using the keywords 'World War One' or 'First World War' will bring up the most hits.
  • You can filter your results by type of material using the list at the top of the results, for example imagesnewspapers and manuscripts - clicking into 'more' will take you different types of material. 
  • To further refine your results you can click 'open filters' towards the top right of the page. This is a great way to narrow dates down.   
  • If you want to search on a particular World War One topic, have a think about what keywords you could use. Some useful ones could be 'Gallipoli', 'Anzac' or 'Passchendaele'.

HOT TIP: Search words, or keywords, are the most important words in our question. Usually it’s better to leave out small words like ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘of’ and just choose the main ones. We can always change our keywords or add more if we need to.

National Library Services to Schools has produced a set of primary sources on the First World War. The National Library is New Zealand's main library and a well respected organisation. The Primary Sources Galleries are in alphabetical order and you should be able to find 'First World War diaries' and 'Anzac'. Have a look through the pages of resources because there will be more, for example 'New Zealand involvement in the First World War'. 

Christchurch City Libraries has digitised heaps of primary sources relating to World War One

  • From the home page, click on 'Explore'. 
  • Then, under the heading local history, click on 'Digital collection'.
  • Next, scroll down to 'War and conflicts', and choose 'World War 1: 1914-1918'.
  • Through this link you can find heaps of World War One primary sources, including letters, diaries, postcards, portraits, shipboard magazines, and information about conscientious objectors.

HOT TIP: Writing from around 100 years ago can be difficult read - take it slowly, and look out for letters and words you can recognise and compare them with ones you're not so sure about.

For newspaper articles published in New Zealand about World War One have a look at PapersPast. From here choose 'newspapers' and you will have the option to search by title, region or date. You can also search for keywords (for example 'war' or you could narrow your results down depending on what topic you are interested in, eg 'Gallipoli') and then narrow down the dates. We tried a search for 'war' between the years 1914 to 1918, and selected 'articles' under the heading content type and got lots of newspaper articles.

Sometimes the only thing displayed will be a headline with the word 'war' in it. In this case, you can choose the option to view the whole page in its original form and there will be a link that says 'page view'.

A good idea is to narrow down your dates even further. Try using this search:

  • Keyword: war
  • Newspapers: All Newspapers
  • Date from: 28 July 1914
  • to: 31 July 1914
  • Content type: Articles

These are the first few days of the war, and you will be able to find newspapers articles published during this time announcing that war has been declared in Europe. You could also look at articles around the 11th of November 1918, the day the war was declared over.

HOT TIP: We like PapersPast because it is from a government organisation (the National Library of New Zealand). You can tell this by their web address – they have either .org or .govt in their address. It is also a New Zealand site, so relevant for us. Overseas government websites will have .gov in their web address.

Another website to look at is anzacsightsound.org. This site has been created by the film and sound archives of New Zealand and Australia and contains video, audio and images relating to many aspects of the war including the home front and the places New Zealanders fought.

The School Journal is a collection of resources supported by the Ministry of Education for New Zealand school students. Their issues from June 2014 contain lots of information about the First World War that are worth exploring. Some of the articles include accounts by soldiers of their experiences, along with stories of World War OneYou can either download pdfs of the entire Journal or pdfs of the article you are interested in. 

If you are looking for more detailed written sources, official sources or books published not long after the war by people who were there, the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre has a collection of digitised books about World War One. These include the official history of the New Zealand Division 1916-1919 and a book about Maori in the Great War (another name for World War One). This website has been created by Victoria University in Wellington.

While this website is a little busy, the First World War Poetry Digital Archive is a great place to view original handwritten drafts of famous war poemsWe like this site as it has been jointly produced by Oxford University in the UK and Jisc.

One way to use this site is to choose the 'browse the collections' option towards the top right corner. This will bring you to an index page with images of all the poets featured in the collection. Using Robert Graves as an example, each entry contains a biography with links to the primary sources themselves towards the bottom of the page. If you know the title or first line of a particular poem you can search that way, if not just click 'go' and all poem manuscripts for that author will be found. 'Find other items' will take you to links to letters and images.

For more information about the war, check out our other ManyAnswers entries about World War One.

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